Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Male Midwife announces his services- Leek 1799

Mr Thomas Birch advertised his profession with the address of his establishment in Market Square Leek. He hoped to follow the late John Wooliscroft who previous ran his surgery from the premises. Mr Birch announced in January 1799 in the “Staffordshire Advertiser “that he was Leek's male midwife and surgeon and  promised that he would apply himself diligently to the task. Mr Birch also required an apprentice.

Earlier  in the century  a baby was born with the assistance of a self- taught traditional midwife. The skin was scoured with salt to remove the “ slippery glue” from its skin. The baby was then wrapped up tightly in swaddling cloth. It was thought  swaddling was needed to protect the delicate limbs of the child , it kept the baby warm as well as for the convenience of the mother and resulted in passivity and therefore easier to manage. The infant could then be hung by a nail on a beam and left so that other tasks could be could be got on with.

The baby would be put to the mother's breast only after milk was seen to come, meanwhile it was purged. Oil of almonds, rose syrup and chicory with rhubarb were given. A strengthening glass of wine or in Scotland oatmeal and whisky was also taken. If the child had difficulty in suckling the midwife would cut through the skin beneath the tongue by finger nails kept long and sharp for the purpose.

By the end of the century that situation began to change as Thomas Birch would have recognised and taken advantage of. More men began to take over the role of the traditional midwife, partly this was due to fashion, but also the consequence of  technological changes. One development that began to be more widely used was the invention of forceps.( Women were thought not to have the technical ability to use them) There was also a class element as the middle class began to prefer a fee paying male practitioners at the birth to demonstrate their higher status . Society seemed to enjoy this mode due to an increase in an interest in science. By 1800 almost half the deliveries were attended by male midwives.

Irrespective of whether a child was born to a male doctor or female midwife the mortality rates of the newly born were extremely high in the 18th century with around 1 in 5 babies not living to the first year , higher when epidemics swept the country. Nor should we suppose that the parents of the time were indifferent to loss, there exist enough letters and diary entries to suggest that infant death  effected parents as badly then as it does now.